At the heart of symbolism

The Prophet and freedom


Khalil Gibran, The Prophet, 1920 (Charcoal)

The author of the Prophet

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was born close to the antique forests of cedars of Lebanon, a country under Ottoman's domination. He was brought up in the Christian maronite religion and educated in the Arabic language. Khalil embarked with his mother, brother and two sisters for the United States in 1885 while his father stayed in Lebanon. After three years in Boston, he returned to Lebanon to continue his studies.

After a first passionate and disappointed love, he travelled in Greece, Italy and Spain before living in Paris where he wrote and studied painting. He finished one of his first books, “Spirits Rebellious” that was condemned by the Ottoman's authorities and judged heretical by the maronite hierarchy.

Back to Boston in 1903, he saw his mother, his brother and one of his sisters dying during the same year. It was in this state of deep distress and at the age of barely 20 that he undertook the English version of the “Prophet” previously written in Arabic. Two revisions in Arabic and four in English were necessary before reaching a finished form. He met Mary Haskell who supported young promising orphans and he remained in connection with her all his life.

In 1908, he returned to Paris where he devoted his time to writing and pictorial research, notably under the influence of the Symbolist movement. He worked at the academy of fine arts, saw Claude Debussy, Maurice Maeterlinck, Edmond Rostand and maybe made friend with Auguste Rodin as one of his paintings entitled “Thinker” could suggest.

Back to the United States in 1910, he definitively set himself up in New York. He organized several exhibitions of his paintings in various galleries. He produced an important literary work consisting of essays, poems, stories, aphorisms and one novel on the essential themes in life. Throughout his existence, he sustained his native country in its fight against the foreign domination summed up in the famous quotation “My people are dead”. Gibran was at the head of a feather circle (“Arrabitah”) consisting of the Arabic elite who had migrated to the United States. Published in 1923, “The Prophet” was immediately successful. Khalil Gibran was obviously born to write a small book on the being's values such as love, beauty, the respect for the other or freedom.

He died in New York in 1931. His remains were brought back to Lebanon according to his wishes.

From freedom to light

  • “And an orator said,
  • Speak to us of Freedom.
  • And he answered:
  • At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom,
  • Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.
  • Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.
  • And my heart bled within me; for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment.
  • You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,
  • But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.
  • And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour ?
  • In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle the eyes.
  • And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free ?
  • If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead.
  • You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.
  • And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.
  • For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their won pride ?
  • And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you.
  • And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.
  • Verily all things move within your being in constant half embrace, the desired and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.
  • These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.
  • And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.
  • And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.”

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